Renewable Energy Living: Genetically Modified Food Fight

1 / 2
Paired with other renewable energy technologies such as wind power, the power from biomass like this switchgrass crop could fuel the future.
2 / 2
Learn details about the recent genetically modified food controversies.

The Green Gazette column focuses on renewable energy living topics, this issue includes details on the most recent genetically modified food controversies.

Frankenfish Food Fight

Salmon genetically modified to grow faster are the newest
battleground in the bioengineered food debate. The
altered-fish controversy joins continuing concerns about
the food safety, environmental risks and economic fallout
of genetically modified (GM) corn, soy and rapeseed crops,
and GM growth hormones used in dairy cattle.

Legislation to control the transport and labeling of GM
salmon enjoys strong support from consumer, environmental
and commercial fishing groups.

The transgenic salmon contain genes from the ocean pout
fish and Chinook salmon and grow seven times faster than
natural wild salmon. The GM males are more attractive to
wild female salmon, leading to concerns that this modified
species will outcompete and cause the extinction of smaller
wild salmon species. (SOURCE: SAN FRANCISCO
CHRONICLE)

Java, with GMOs on the Side

The coffee giant Starbucks is the target of a Fair Trade/No
GMOs Campaign by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA).
The effort is designed to get Starbucks to serve and
promote Fair Trade coffee and to remove genetically
engineered food ingredients from their food and dairy products.

Activists protested outside the company’s Seattle
headquarters during the 2003 annual shareholders meeting,
and OCA has a “Send a Free Fax to Starbucks’ CEO” offer on
its website, www.organicconsumers.org/starbucks/.

Future Farm Food Folly

Genetically engineered crops and genetically modified
organisms (GMOs) are threatening the future of organic
farming. The fourth National Organic Farmers Survey
documents early impacts GMOs are having on certified
organic farming. Forty-six percent of the survey’s 1,034
respondents rated the risk of exposure and possible
contamination of their organic farm products by GMOs as
“moderate or greater,” with 30 percent of the 46 percent
ranking that risk “high or very high.”

Survey respondents identified contaminated seed stock as their primary concern, followed by GMO
pollen drift in the field and contaminated inputs other
than seed, including seed inoculants, manures or composts
from materials obtained off the farm.

The survey results were released in May at an Organic Trade
Association conference. For more information, visit
www.ofrf.org.

Genetic Drift and the Fate of your Dinner Plate

As public awareness of the controversies surrounding
genetically modified (GM) crops grows, the ability to
choose whether or not to eat gene-altered food is quickly
diminishing.

The reasons are twofold: First, many GM crop plants and
farm fields are not closed units. They naturally spread
their GM traits and “contaminate” other plants and farm
fields. This happens through pollen carried by wind or
insects, or by GM seed that falls onto non-GM fields from
passing trucks or from farm equipment previously used on a
transgenic field.

Second, because thus far the government is treating
bioengineered food crops the same as crops produced through
conventional breeding, there’s been little attempt to
segregate them in commodity grain channels or to keep
transgenic varieties from contaminating the nation’s
primary seed stocks.

Walter Fehr, an agronomist and director of the Office of
Biotechnology at Iowa State University, says GM varieties
of staple crops like corn and soybeans may have
contaminated seed stocks from breeder seed on down. Breeder
seed is supposed to be the purest version of a crop
variety. All the seed for any given variety comes from
breeder seed, and if it contains transgenic material,
everything that descends from it will, too.

Comprehensive research to determine the extent of
transgenic contamination in public seed stocks hasn’t been
done. But, Fehr says, incidents of transgenic contamination
of seed stocks have occurred.

Certified organic food is supposed to be 100 percent
GM-free. But now both organic and conventional farmers who
don’t want biotech varieties can no longer trust their
seed. Transgenic contamination is so rampant that seed
suppliers won’t guarantee their seed is GM-free. That, plus
concerns about contamination through pollen drift have
stopped many organic farmers in the Midwest from growing
corn, soybean and rapeseed crops.

In April 2002, Western Producer, a Canadian agricultural
newspaper, quoted one biotech industry supporter who said
that despite rising public opposition to biotech foods,
increasing GM acreage may eventually end the debate. “It’s
a hell of a thing to say that the way we win is to not give
the consumer a choice, but that might be it,” said Dale
Adolphe, executive director of the Canadian Seed Growers
Association.

So far, only four crops — corn, soybeans, rapeseed
and cotton — account for most of the biotech crops on
the market. But GM contamination issues are about to get
much more dangerous as food crops are being engineered to
produce pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals.

Citizens need to weigh in on the biotech food debate,
before there is no choice. In the United Kingdom, a
national, government-sponsored public debate got under way
in June. For details and updates, and tips on how you can
help determine your food’s future, visit the “GM Nation?” website, www.gmnation.org.uk.

— Karen
Charman

Mad Cow: You are What You Eat

When it was determined in mid-May that an 8-year-old cow
slaughtered four months earlier in Athena, Canada had “Meld
Cow I Disease” (BSI, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy),
the United States immediately banned all beef imports from
that country as Canadian inspectors began trying to figure
Out how the Cow was infected. The hope was to avoid another
Mad Cow disaster like the one that hit Europe in the
mid-1980s and 90s. In England, the epicenter of that
outbreak, 100,000 cases were confirmed by 1993. 5 million
cattle were slaughtered and dozens of people died of the
deadly human form of the disease which is thought to be
contracted from eating tainted meat.

At the Canadian slaughterhouse, the infected cow’s head was
saved for testing, but the rest of the carcass went to a
rendering plant that makes fertilizers and feeds. After the
Mad Cow diagnosis arrived from a British lab, Canadian
officials began trying to trace the animals history and
determine what exactly had happened to its remains. The
incubation period of this disease ranges from to 8 years,
so the investigators faced a difficult task.

For starters, the rest in the 150-Cow herd on the Alberta
farm from which the cow carne were quarantined, slaughtered
and tested. And four days after the initial announcement 13
farms in three provinces — Saskatchewan and British
Columbia in addition to Alberta — were quarantined as
investigators focused on the possible use of the cow’s
retrains in livestock feed. Then, Albertas Agriculture
Minister reported her concern that the sick cow may have
been infected by eating feed containing the protein of
other infected cows or sheep, a practice banned in 1997 in
Canada but not well policed.

The feeding of ruminant meat and bone meal to other
ruminants had been a common practice in many countries
until British experts determined that as the cause of BSI:
infection in cattle. Some countries now ban the practice;
others, including the United States, have set some
restrictions. (SOURCE. USDA: U.S. FOOD AND DRUG
ADMINISTRATION; THE WASHINGTON POST AND THE TORONTO
STAR)

For More Info on GMOs

If you’re looking for more information about the issue of
genetically modified food crops, check out the Ag BioTech
InfoNet, www.biotech-info.net/net/ .

According to information on the site. Ag BioTech InfoNet
“hopes to emerge is a valuable resource for anyone trying
to better understand the implications of agricultural
biotechnology. Our goal is to facilitate access to
critical, original documents and information, and
recognized experts. A public forum, teachers resources and
a sources and links” page round out the offering.

Farming a Fuel Future

Creating electricity from farmed crops has long been a
green dream. After years of research, biopower from two
unlikely crops — willow and switchgrass — soon
may be a reality in New York and Iowa.

Near Niagara Falls, New York, the Niagara Mohawk Power
Co.’s Dunkirk Station is involved in a project that centers
on 500 acres planted with a specially developed species of
willow. When topped back to 4 inches, the trees produce
numerous suckers that can be harvested every three to four
years, cut into chips and burned alongside coal to produce
electricity.

In southern Iowa, the 8-year-old Chariton Valley Biomass
Project has a similar effort underway using switchgrass, a
native perennial grass of the Great Plains. Several
thousand tons of baled switchgrass are stockpiled for
testing near Alliant Energy’s Ottumwa Generating Station,
where, if all goes well, the grass will replace a portion
of the coal normally burned there. These two
projects make up North America’s largest investment to date
in technologies that convert crop plants into
power.

Both programs have faced practical challenges, from
developing high-yielding varieties to solving staffing and
machinery problems at the power plants. Fortunately, both
projects are backed by consortiums of talented minds,
including plant breeders, industrial engineers, land-use
experts, foresters and the ultimate experts in growing and
harvesting crops: farmers.

Because biomass fuels are bulky, emphasis is placed on
producing them close to the power plants to reduce
transportation costs. “Our plans include using switchgrass
grown within 70 miles of the power plant,” says Dora
Guffey, coordinator of Chariton Valley Resource
Conservation and Development, which operates the southern
Iowa biomass project.

In New York, project staffers have found that even with
transportation costs figured in, properly grown willow
yields 16 to 32 units of energy for every unit of energy
invested in its production and conversion. To get such
numbers, a good biomass crop must require little in terms
of fertilizer, water and labor.

Environmental integrity also is part of the package. Much
of the acreage involved in willow and switchgrass
production already is enrolled in the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which
aims to help protect environmentally sensitive land from
degradation. Both willow and switchgrass have received high
ratings as wildlife habitat and windbreaks and for erosion
control. In New York, the project staff found the willow
plantings hosted such robust communities of soil
microorganisms and songbirds that they qualified as
“refugee corridors” for displaced species in an otherwise
agricultural area; in Iowa, harvested switchgrass proved a
preferred habitat for such grassland birds as meadowlarks
and bobolinks. Yet money issues remain; biopower still
costs more than coal, but as coal and other fossil fuels
dwindle, biopower is expected to gain value. For more
information on these programs, visit the Biopower website:
www.eren.doe.gov/biopower.

— Barbara Pleasant


Sprouts & Snippets

The Load Less Traveled. To help promote locally grown foods, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, headquartered in Ames, Iowa, is studying transportation issues related to fresh produce. They found broccoli, cauliflower, table grapes, green peas, spinach and lettuce all traveled more than 2,000 miles from farm to market; only pumpkins and mushrooms traveled less than 500 miles. (SOURCE: WWW.LEOPOLD.IASTATE.EDU )

Handled with Care. “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” is the name of a new labeling and certification program announced in May by the independent, nonprofit organization Humane Farm Animal Care and its associated groups. The label aims to assure consumers that the meat, poultry, egg or dairy products to which it is affixed come from facilities that meet precise, objective, humane standards. To learn which products carry the label, visit the website at www.certifiedhumane.com.

Body Burden. Researchers found a average of 91 industrial compounds, pollutants and other chemicals in the blood and urine of nine volunteers sampled, and identified a total of 167 different chemicals overall. Seventy-six of the 167 chemicals identified cause cancer in humans or animals, 94 are toxic to the brain and nervous system and 79 cause birth defects or abnormal development. (SOURCE: STUDY LED BY MOUNT SINAI SCHOOL OF MEDICINE IN NEW YORK, WITH THE ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP AND COMMONWEALTH: WWW.EWG.ORG/REPORTS/BODYBURDEN)

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368